Friday 22 March 2019

Dear Mary: I can't bear thought of living rest of my life with hypochondriac wife

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I have been happily married for two decades to a brilliant friend, wife and mother. We have great children who are now adults and making their own way in the world.

Both my wife and I work and enjoy doing so. However, I am at a stage where I am looking forward to retiring and spending quality time with each other again.

My problem is through all our married life, my wife has constantly worried obsessively about her health. It used to be called hypochondria but I understand it's illness anxiety disorder now.

If it's a headache, she imagines it's a brain haemorrhage; a pain in her back is lung cancer (but usually muscular strain) and indigestion is a cardiac arrest.

The trend is an immediate visit to her GP, who knowing her anxiety, (rightly or wrongly, and I think the latter) refers her to a hospital and/or specialist.

There is no question of waiting for an appointment publicly, and all visits are arranged privately. Thankfully, all scans, X-rays and tests have never shown anything serious or life-threatening.

I have tried different approaches - if I try to assure her nothing is wrong, I am told I'm not a doctor; if I say nothing, I'm accused of not caring. I used to be able to say 'that's just her' but have recently found myself saying 'Is this all retirement has in store?' or 'Why do I feel I'm being dumped on?'

My wife is quite sociable and all these illnesses seem to disappear before a night out.

Am I being totally selfish and unreasonable?

Mary replies: You are not being selfish or unreasonable because what you are trying to do is to ensure that both you and your wife have the best possible retirement when you both decide to stop working and enter into the next phase of your life together.

It seems to have been a pretty good life so far and so I can appreciate your desire to make it even better.

As I understand it hypochondria has been indeed replaced by illness anxiety disorder since 2013. But I can see that whatever it is called it must put a lot of strain on those around the sufferer.

As in a lot of psychiatrically based conditions, the partner also goes through a huge amount of stress, and this is borne out by your email.

Because the person with the condition fully believes that they have some awful disease or illness, they are incredibly worried and anxious, so it is of no use to tell your wife that she is perfectly well because she simply won't believe you.

This is in the same way that someone suffering with anorexia believes themselves to be too fat even though their loved ones can see that they are unhealthily thin.

While anti-anxiety medications have been used in the past, an effective way to treat this condition seems to have been found by using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

A CBT therapist can help the sufferer to challenge the way they have been thinking previously and will help them to recognise the feelings that cause them to believe that they have threatening symptoms.

They will then learn how to be able to change these feelings to a more positive thought pattern and ultimately change their behaviour.

This, however, presupposes that your wife would be willing to go along with all of this and see a therapist.

I suspect this is unlikely because she probably doesn't believe there is a problem, and this is then at the heart of the matter.

Can you talk to her about your hopes and dreams for when you both retire and your wish that you both stay healthy for as long as possible?

If you own the concern, rather than blaming her, you might find it easier to bring up the subject. You might be able to get her to look at the last number of times when she felt she was seriously ill and what subsequently transpired, but it would have to be handled very delicately.

Would it be possible to enlist the help of your adult children? They must have first-hand experience of all of this through the years they were living at home.

However, what I suspect may happen is that she will continue as before and you will decide to just wait until a particular episode is over, and she feels well again.

I'm sorry that I don't have a magic answer for you and I hope that nevertheless you have some wonderful golden years together.

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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